A reasonably accurate diagnosis of dementia can be made by taking a careful history of the person's problem from a close relative or friend, together with an examination of the person's physical and mental state.

There is, however, no simple test to make a diagnosis. Dementia can only be confirmed with certainty by examining the brain after death, depsite significant improvements in brain imaging. There is new research on development of tests that can detect Alzheimer's disease biomarkers, but this remains at an early stage.

When making a diagnosis, it is important to exclude other treatable conditions that cause memory loss such as depression, urinary infection, vitamin deficiency and brain tumour. 

Too few people receive a diagnosis

In low and middle income countries, as few as 10% of those affected receive a diagnosis. In higher income countries, aproximately half of individuals receive a diagnosis, but in all countries post diagnostic support, treatment and access to care remain significant barriers to living well.

Benefits of timely diagnosis

The impact of a dementia diagnosis depends greatly upon how it is made and imparted. Evidence suggests that when people with dementia and their families are well prepared and supported, initial feelings of shock, anger and grief are balanced by a sense of reassurance and empowerment.

An diagnosis made early in the course of the disease is helpful, because it:

  • enables carers and people with dementia to be better equipped to cope with the disease progression
  • provides people with dementia with an opportunity to make decisions about their financial and legal affairs while they still have the capacity to do so
  • gives people with dementia a better chance to benefit from available drug and non-drug therapies that may improve their cognition and enhance their quality of life.

Where next?